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Understanding the Key Differences Between Chronic Vs. Acute Pain

chronic vs. acute pain

At least 25.3 million adults suffered from continuous pain for the last 90 days. And those numbers are rising each year.

Are you suffering? Is it from acute or chronic pain?

By the time you finish this article, you’ll understand how doctors differentiate these types of pain. And you’ll learn the signs, so you can tell them apart.

Why Does Your Body Feel Pain?

Pain’s unpleasant, but necessary. We need it for our survival.

Billions of nerves weave through our body.

They lace through bones, muscles, and organs. No area is devoid of these tiny, often microscopic fibers.

Many of these nerves act as sense receptors. When stimulated, they send feedback to our brains (and bodies) about the world around.

  • Is the pan hot?
  • Is the light blue?
  • Is the noise loud?
  • Is the fruit bitter?

We need this information to recognize danger. Otherwise, every action we took would be as likely to kill us as it would to nourish us.

We need to understand our internal world as much as our external world. What would happen if our teeth rotted inside our mouth without us realizing it? What if we broke a bone and remained unaware?

Pain is our body’s way of telling us something is wrong, and we’d better pay attention.

Acute Pain

Acute pain is the more common type. When you injure yourself from a cut, your nerve endings immediately fire up. They send impulses to your brain to tell you, “Hey, something’s wrong here.”

The type of injury is unimportant when assessing chronic vs. acute pain. It could be paper cut or a deep laceration in your abdomen. It could be a broken jaw or a brain hemorrhage.

The level of pain is also irrelevant. The blinding agony may cause you to pass out, or you may not even notice it. It doesn’t matter in the determination.

What type of medicine you require to block the pain is also inconsequential. You might need acetaminophen or an opioid. It doesn’t make any difference.

What’s important is:

  • the sudden onset of pain
  • the duration of pain

The sudden onset indicates a recent trauma to your body. Sufferers often describe the pain as sharp, stabbing, or white-hot. It also tends to emanate from a specific point.

The duration should last less than three weeks.

Why did doctors choose this three-week window? That’s how long it takes your body to heal most injuries. There are exceptions, of course.

Which is why the number isn’t set in stone. It’s a guideline.

Here are some common causes of acute pain:

  • Cuts
  • Burns
  • Surgery
  • Child Birth
  • Dental Work
  • Broken Bones
  • Back Injury from lifting wrong

Chronic Pain

According to Stanford’s Redlich Professor, Sean Mackey, MD, Ph.D. chronic pain affects over 100 million Americans. It costs the US over half a trillion dollars each year and is the foremost cause of unemployment.

When you consider chronic vs. acute pain, chronic is a little harder to put your finger on.

The International Association for the Study of Pain describes it as an “unpleasant sensory and emotional experience.”

They go on to say the pain may be your body’s reaction to actual tissue damage (genuine danger). Or, it may be your body’s response to what it thinks is damage, but isn’t (false danger).

You can’t differentiate chronic pain from acute pain by your “level of pain” or your “type of medication required.”

The determining factor here is:

  • the duration of pain

Unfortunately, the duration of chronic pain is even less precise than acute pain. The definition varies between one to six months (though most doctors agree on three). Acute pain can turn into chronic pain if it doesn’t reside.

Patients tend to describe it as burning, dull, or aching. They also describe it as diffuse or radiating.

Here are some common causes of chronic pain:

  • Cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Migraines
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Chronic Back Pain

Why Doesn’t My Pain Switch Off?

According to Laura Kiesel of Harvard Medical School, pain may linger for two reasons.

  1. Your body is notifying you of a continuing threat. (Genuine danger)
  2. Nerves have become super-sensitized to stimulus and begun amplifying pain signals. (False danger)

The problem is that it’s initially impossible to tell the two apart. Modern medicine is flawed. Doctors can’t always identify a real threat, even when one exists.

Two examples are early signs of cancer or mild bone fractures.

Moreover, our science can’t explain all ailments and diseases yet. A great example is fibromyalgia. Doctors recognize the symptoms of the disease, but not the cause.

(Idiopathic is the term they use to describe such diseases.)

Chronic Pain and Opioids

Opioids are regarded as one of the most effective drugs for pain management. Unfortunately, they’re also one of the most addictive.

According to, the ’90s pharmaceutical companies told the medical community patients wouldn’t become addicted to opioid pain relievers. Healthcare providers, in turn, prescribed them in more significant numbers.

They later found this was patently false.

They’re highly addictive.

Since 2000, drug overdoses involving opioids has increased 200%. StatNews predicts opioids could kill over half a million Americans in the next decade.

The big question remains, what will the medical community do about it.

If you suffer from chronic pain, this may affect you. Some state legislatures have already voted to pass laws on opioid distribution. Keep an eye open in your state this year.

Alternative Therapies for Chronic vs. Acute pain

Many alternative therapies don’t delineate between chronic vs. acute pain. They work as well on either.

If you can’t stomach drugs, try physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, biofeedback, or meditation. Each helps you train your body to reinterpret pain signals.

If you suffer from chronic pain, it’s likely back pain. That’s the most common type, second only to headache pain. The good news for you is it’s often treatable with alternative therapies.

If your problem is your lower back, strengthen your core muscles and reduce your weight. Both will reduce the strain on your lumbar vertebra.

No matter which form of alternative therapy you choose, get started today.

It may change your life forever.

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